Manitoba

'I lost everything': Beating victim says government gave away his belongings while he was in coma

A Winnipeg man who was nearly beaten to death in an unprovoked attack is suing after a provincial agency gave away all his belongings while he recovered from his brain injuries in hospital.

Marcel Blanchette, left nearly brain-dead after attack, says public agency traumatized him a 2nd time

Marcel Blanchette said while he was in a coma, a public guardian took over control of his affairs and gave away all his belongings. (Laura Glowacki/CBC)

When Marcel Blanchette recalls the moments he began to regain consciousness after his coma, he feels a sense of anguish.

"It's devastation, really," he said, choking back tears. "I lost everything in my life."

While lying in his hospital bed at Winnipeg's Health Sciences Centre in March 2015, recovering from an unprovoked assault the previous December, the now-52-year-old man learned he'd lost his apartment and that all his belongings had been given away by a public employee assigned to manage his affairs.

"Coming out of a coma in intensive care and then dealing with reality — I was a victim again," said Blanchette. "What this government department did was not honest and it was not fair."

Blanchette launched a lawsuit in May against the Public Guardian and Trustee of Manitoba — a provincial agency responsible for the affairs of children, mentally incapable adults and other vulnerable people — for $93,778 in losses he claims he suffered during his recovery in hospital.

The amount includes the total cost of replacing his belongings (which he estimates is about $37,054), along with legal costs ($15,000), rent money paid unnecessarily ($2,139) and other costs, including refiling taxes and replacing his birth certificate.

Unable to pay for a lawyer, Blanchette filed his statement of claim himself. He kept meticulous documentation of his communications with the Public Guardian and Trustee of Manitoba and of the property he lost. (Laura Glowacki/CBC)

The provincial agency declined CBC's request for an interview. In a statement of defence written May 26, 2017, it denies Blanchette's claims and disputes his grounds for a lawsuit.

It cites The Public Guardian and Trustee Act, Section 37, which says the agency cannot be sued if it acted in good faith to exercise its power and duty under the act.

None of Blanchette's allegations have been proven in court, but he has supplied documentation to the CBC, including receipts and copies of emails.

Blanchette also sent the CBC a letter written by a lawyer representing the government agency offering him a settlement of $3,757, or roughly the total cost of all his items at a typical second-hand store.

Blanchette rejected the offer.

"I've fought too long and hard for this and I won't give up," he said.

While lying in his hospital bed at Winnipeg's Health Sciences Centre in March 2015, recovering from an unprovoked assault the previous December, Marcel Blanchette learned he'd lost his apartment and that all his belongings had been given away by a public employee assigned to manage his affairs. 1:43

Vicious, unprovoked attack

Blanchette said he does not remember the Dec. 2, 2014 attack that fractured his skull, nose and eye socket and caused life-threatening bleeding in his brain.

The perpetrator, Sherman Kang, a 32-year-old father of six from Lake Manitoba First Nation with a history of violence and substance abuse, is currently serving a prison term for the assault.

After surgeries, Blanchett was in a coma that lasted weeks. What followed were three months in intensive care and several more in rehabilitation.

On Jan. 12, 2015 doctors signed an order of committeeship — which appoints the Public Guardian and Trustee of Manitoba to make decisions on behalf of a vulnerable person — and the agency took responsibility for Blanchette's financial and personal affairs. The committeeship lasted almost 13 months, until Feb. 6, 2016.

Blanchette doesn't speak to his biological family and while his stepmother, who lives in Saskatchewan, was willing to take care of his affairs, she was not next-of-kin and could not exercise power of attorney, he said.

The self-employed IT consultant had no living will or medical directive for officials to follow.

80% recovered

After more than a year in hospital and transitional housing, Blanchette lives independently in a clean, one-bedroom downtown apartment. 

Other than a thin white scar along his right cheek and a slight bend to his nose (which he plans to fix with help from a plastic surgeon), the lasting injuries Blanchett suffered are mostly invisible.

One of three pages of handwritten notes a friend of Blanchette created listing some of the items he lost and their approximate value. (Affidavit of Marcel Blanchette)

He describes himself as 80 per cent recovered — at times there's numbness on his left side and he lives with a higher risk of developing pneumonia because of damage left by a tracheotomy during his coma.

He works out every day at a nearby community centre, and he's enrolled in JavaScript courses at Red River College to help him restart his IT consulting business.

"I think the biggest problem with this was they lost hope," he said, referring to both his family and the Public Guardian and Trustee. "Never lose hope."

Photographs included in a 2016 affidavit show Blanchette's belongings before they were given to his property manager. (Affidavit of Marcel Blanchette)

Blanchette said he began to have suspicions about how his affairs were being handled about three months after his injuries.

His step-uncle helped him create a Gmail account which gave him a way to communicate with the outside world from intensive care at Health Sciences Centre.

"I realized at that point that something had occurred that wasn't right," Blanchette said.

He learned by email that his apartment and belongings were gone.

The public trustee had given up all Blanchette's property, including his furniture, clothing, artwork, personal tax documents and family photos, to Sussex Realty, his property manager, Blanchette discovered.

The property manager donated the items to Big Brothers Big Sisters, who sold everything by weight.

Thankfully, Blanchette says, the charity had the foresight to save a plastic bag containing some of his personal paperwork, including diplomas and a few family photos which are now proudly displayed on the walls of his new apartment.

Blanchette's advice to others is to never lose hope in people or yourself. (Laura Glowacki/CBC)

A letter written by an adult services administrator with the agency said the value of his belongings did not exceed the cost of moving and storing his items. Blanchette submitted the Oct. 16, 2015 letter to the court.

Public Guardian and Trustee administrator Melanie Wattam wrote: "Your family was unable to assist with the cost of moving and storage and you did not have the funds available to pay for the same, therefore The Public Guardian and Trustee was required to walk away from the apartment and its contents."

Blanchette believes income from a victim's compensation fund, along with his Canada Pension Plan disability benefit, would have been enough to move the contents of his apartment and store them.

"It's really heartbreaking for me, for someone to say that after 50 years of living that what I had in life had no value," Blanchette said.

'A very challenging role'

Blanchette's theory is the Public Guardian assumed that he would never wake up from his coma and return to his old life — he wouldn't need family photos or even his credit card, unconscious in a hospital bed.

"My understanding is they thought I was going to be brain-dead," said Blanchette. 

Blanchette cracks a smile talking about his daily workouts at Cindy Klassen Recreation Complex and enrolling in kick-boxing classes for the first time. (Laura Glowacki/CBC)

His experiences with the Public Guardian and Trustee of Manitoba aren't unique, according to the Manitoba Brain Injury Association's Satoshi Yamashita.

An accountant by trade, Yamashita works as a case manager with Blanchette and has been helping him put his life back together over the past two years, including refiling his taxes from when he was under a trusteeship.

He estimates between 20 and 25 per cent of the roughly 200 clients with the Brain Injury Association are under the care of the Public Guardian and Trustee, and says most of them have had strained relationships with their administrators.

Most of the clients have never even met their trustee in person, said Yamashita.

"They only talk on the phone," he said. "And that's the biggest issue .… They don't know who's dealing with the money."

Do you have a story about the Public Trustee and Guardian of Manitoba you want to share with CBC? Email laura.glowacki@cbc.ca.

About the Author

Laura Glowacki is a reporter based in Winnipeg. Before moving to Manitoba in 2015, she worked as an associate producer for CBC's Metro Morning in Toronto. Find her on Twitter @glowackiCBC and reach her by email at laura.glowacki@cbc.ca.